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Intentional Community

The DSO’s Detroit Neighborhood Initiative

It had been over a year since students from the Civic Youth Ensembles Dresner Allegro Ensemble had performed before a live audience, when they took the stage at the inaugural Chandler Park Community Arts and Music Festival in July. With the encouragement of their CYE director Leslie DeShazor—beaming with pride—they performed for an attentive audience as eager to hear as they were to play. 

The performance was just one of the highlights of the festival, the first Detroit Neighborhood Initiative “Musical Experience” event, that blended classical and urban music, spoken word poetry, and West African music and dance.

Chelsea Gallo, dressed in train conductor overalls, explained the essentials of classical music to the audience—using her “conductor’s whistle” for emphasis—and led DSO musicians in a performance. Oboe Monica Fosnaugh and bassoon Jaquain Sloan (one of the DSO’s two African American Orchestra Fellows) explained the functioning of reed instruments, showing the audience how sounds are produced by a small vibrating splinter of wood. Of the 400 Detroiters in attendance at the event, more than half had never attended a performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra before.

The music, poetry, and dance performances were only one part of a community event that included 27 community partners. Ceramics artists from the Pewabic Pottery street team demonstrated baking pottery and community members tried violins with Sphinx, danced with Crescendo Detroit, and completed a musical scavenger hunt with the DSO.  

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In 2017, the DSO launched its Social Progress Initiative, affirming a commitment to continuous dialogue and action that leverages the power of music to improve quality of life for the people of Detroit and beyond. Building on the foundations of the past, we recently expanded this vision into the Detroit Strategy—one pillar of which is the Detroit Neighborhood Initiative.
The core of Neighborhood Initiative work in 2021 has been community partnership-building and listening. “We decided to begin our work in the neighborhoods of Chandler Park and Southwest,” says Karisa Antonio, DSO Director of Social Innovation. “We began reaching out to organizations in the neighborhoods and asking them if they would partner with us and introduce us to their residents in community listening sessions. We have now met 50 community organizations.” The goal of meeting residents, listening, and learning about each neighborhood’s vibrant culture is to build sustainable relationships and co-create celebratory musical experiences with the people who live, work, and grow in each neighborhood.

One of these partners is Brilliant Detroit. “We exist to create kids' success neighborhoods, where kids and families have everything they need, belly to eight,” says co-founder and CEO Cindy Eggleton. “What’s at the center of this work is that our work is done in neighborhoods, with people from neighborhoods—we hire from neighborhoods—so they are driving what they want for themselves.”   

After eleven listening sessions, the DSO planned four neighborhood-driven Musical Experiences for this summer, including the first annual Chandler Park Community Arts and Music Festival on Detroit’s east side. 

Savana Brewer, Director of Community Planning and Organizing at Eastside Community Network (ECN), says after attending the festival, residents have been calling ECN asking how they can participate and help promote the next Chandler Park Musical Experience. “I think it is important to remember that we are stronger together,” says Savana, also a poet, who performed for the first time publicly at the festival. “Opportunities to perform or showcase are so important, because sharing those experiences can save someone’s life.” 

All community partners surveyed after the event said they would participate in the Chandler Park Community Arts and Music Festival again. "I felt that my voice was heard and my ideas were appreciated," wrote one survey respondent. "Everyone was engaged, respectful, and assisted where needed," wrote another. 

Listening is something that a lot of people talk about, but we wanted to engage in listening that was about coming to an understanding of the people we were hearing, and an understanding of not just how much we are doing, but how well we are doing it and if anyone is actually better off. ”

Karisa Antonio, DSO Director of Social Innovation
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Relationship building under the Neighborhood Initiative umbrella doesn’t just happen in listening sessions and at the larger community gatherings. An example of this work in action is a recent virtual event with Congress of Communities (CoC) in Southwest, Detroit. One of CoC’s programs is a monthly virtual playgroup for children ages 0-8. Each participating family receives a bag with items to complete an activity together, and in July this bag included materials to build musical instruments, including a kazoo. 

As a community partner helping to introduce the DSO to neighborhood residents, CoC invited the DSO to participate in July’s music-themed playgroup, ahead of the upcoming August 21 Musical Experience in Southwest, Detroit’s Clark Park. The playgroup was led by Amanda Holiday, CoC’s Early Childhood Specialist and Community Organizer, who conducted the session in English and Spanish.

Holiday welcomed special guests DSO Principal Timpani Jeremy Epp and bassoon Marcus Schoon. Marcus used clips from Disney movies to illustrate the mood of different sounds by comparing sounds to characters. “What I want you to imagine in your mind is that the Beast is introducing himself to Beauty for the first time; first he is shy, and then he is more bold,” and used the contrabassoon to portray the crocodile from Captain Hook.

Jeremy defined what a percussion instrument is: anything that can be hit, shaken, or scraped to produce sound, then demonstrated each technique.

Throughout the session, Amanda checked in with the families participating to provide additional instructions on kazoo-building, allowing for questions and show and tell—one participant was especially proud of the slimes she had illustrated on the small paper tube making up the body of her kazoo. After each musician presented, she unmuted for the kids to cheer and applaud, their faces lighting up with smiles. 

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Sustainability is a critical foundation of the Detroit Neighborhood Initiative, so next summer will see the expansion to one additional neighborhood, allowing for continual engagement with residents met this year. But this summer isn’t over yet. We’ll return to Chandler Park on August 14, this time highlighting gospel music and jazz, and hold our first Southwest Musical Experience in Clark Park on August 21. Join us to hear DSO musicians, celebrate community artists, meet local organizations, and get connected with musical resources for everyone in the family.

Intentional Community: The DSO’s Detroit Neighborhood Initiative



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